Why are people so obsessed with these ghost-hunting shows, when they are so obviously faked? I don't want to believe that people are this stupid.
—Justin M., via Facebook
Well you've just scared up a big old mess for me, haven't you? There are plenty of those shows: Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Haunted Collector, Ghost Hunters International, How I Met Your Mummy (I made that last one up ... or did I?). If you're a fan, I have some dish you'll definitely want to read:
For this, I donned my jumpsuit, grabbed a ghost trap and solicited the help of Benjamin Radford, managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. The reason I chose Radford is that, though he is, by definition, a skeptic, he also conducts scientifically based ghost hunts of his own, and leaves his mind open to the idea that, sometime, maybe, in the future, a real ghost just might come along and blow all our minds. (Probably not.) (But maybe.) (Not that he's ever found a ghost on one of these hunts.) (But you never know.)
As part of his work, Radford has ridden along on some of those ghost hunts that you see on TV. He says he's never seen blatant evidence of deliberate fakery. However, one former Ghost Hunters castmember, Donna LaCroix, has hinted that the Syfy show may not totally be on the up and up. She wasn't specific, though, and, for the record, she also stated that she was upset over how show producers had treated her.
What Radford has seen, though, is earnest people, at least some of whom genuinely believe they're interacting with ghosts, psyching themselves out, fielding perfectly earthly noises and sights and leaping to the conclusion that they can't be explained. Example: The show MysteryQuest. Radford says he went along for an investigation of the Wolfe Manor in Clovis, Calif.
"People who were there when I was there weren't necessarily faking anything," he recalls. "But I did see cases where the crew inadvertently made sounds or lights that were at least briefly interpreted as ghostly."
Indeed, many ghost-hunting shows rely heavily on sounds they say they can't explain or debunk—footsteps, squeaks, even voices. However, Radford notes, those shows also appear to have only two or three people in a dark room at the same time. Not so; there are actually as many as eight or nine, exponentially upping the chances that a random sneaker squeak or sigh from a second A.D. could appear to be unexplained.
Or maybe it isn't so random.
"Even if the people you see on camera aren't intentionally hoaxing, there is no reason why the rest of the TV crew isn't doing that," Radford tells me. (Indeed: Listen to that podcast featuring LaCroix above.)
Either way, Radford says, "What investigators tend to assume is that, if they can't re-create it, therefore, it is a ghost. But just because they may not be able to figure out what that weird light was, it doesn't mean it was a ghost."
Lastly, let's talk about the equipment: Ghosty hosts love to whip out blinking electromagnetic field detectors and laser grids and infrared lighting, all in hopes of trapping missives from the spirit world. It's always fun to watch those instruments freak out all by themselves. Trouble is, what does it mean?
"When you actually pin down these investigators, and ask what exactly are you claiming the connection is between an EMF detector and ghosts, they don't really have an answer," Radford says. "They just say that, you know, it's thought that, or some people claim, that ghosts give off EMFs."
All that said, for the record, the people currently on these shows, particularly Ghost Hunters, insist that they have no reason to lie.
Can I take off this jumpsuit now?